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Three lawsuits target Jefferson County Sheriff's Department

Three women with the same attorney have filed lawsuits against the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department and members within it for allegations relating to sexual misconduct or harassment.

The first lawsuit was filed in April. It alleges Deputy Steven Cote took topless photographs of fellow Deputy Krystal Rice, for use in an online pedophile investigation. Rice was a young, new deputy at the time. She alleges a contract was drawn up with the knowledge of leaders in the department specifying how the photos would be used – but now the contract is missing and so are the photos. 

A judge dismissed several aspects of that lawsuit earlier this month, but the allegation of breach of contract remains. Charu Narang is the attorney representing Rice. 

"I would like to see some sort of sanctions, because I'm very surprised that someone who is the subject of a lawsuit, and now two lawsuits, is still at work, they haven't been suspended, with or without pay, they're still allowed to do their job," Narang said. "In fact, they're still in the same office building as Deputy Rice."

The second lawsuit Narang is referring to is another one involving Cote. Another woman, Raven Carreira, heard about the first lawsuit and she also sued Cote, alleging defamation.

Carreira, a convicted felon, had had a relationship with another sheriff's deputy, James Randall. That relationship ended because of the Sheriff's Department's policy prohibiting relationships between deputies and known criminals. But later, Cote allegedly told Randall's neighbor that Carreira had threatened Randall's life.

The suit against the county in that matter has been thrown out for late filing, but an individual suit against Cote will move forward.

Attorney Narang says although the Rice and Carreira suits are different, they share a common theme.

"These wrongs are being perpetrated against young women, women who are naïve or women who are in a vulnerable position, and so, people think that, 'Why would I believe her, when she says, 'oh, someone harassed me from the police?'" she said.

Narang says the suits have led her to believe there's a troubling culture in the Sheriff's Department.

County attorney David Paulsen says because of the pending litigation, he can't discuss the county's version of what happened in these incidents. 

"It keeps me from addressing them publicly, it keeps us from, you know, reporting to the public what we think did happen and addressing the real...concerns, maybe, that are out there," Paulsen said.

But Paulsen says it's not fair to paint the whole department in a broad brush because of the suits.

"I think it's extremely unfair to take any of these examples and generalize them across them across the board to any other members of the department," he said.

He says the department will decide whether sanctions are appropriate against Cote after the facts come out in the lawsuits.

There's a third lawsuit against the department. It involves Undersheriff Andrew Neff and a woman named Michele Bowens. Bowens says she had a relationship with Neff years ago. She now has felony charges pending, and she says Neff offered to help her with the charges in exchange for sexual favors. She claims he sent her lewd messages and photos from his county-issued cell phone.

Neff has been suspended from the job for now. In addition to the the lawsuit filed by Narang, state police are also investigating the case.